Sunday, October 25, 2009

Elections Can Be Confusing!!

Helping Our Students Make Sense of Elections

As adults who have watched countless election cycles come and go, we have a pretty good idea about the processes and mechanics of the campaign cycles. We also are able to differentiate between the elections that are simultaneously occurring. What I have discovered in my quarter of a century of working with kids is that this whole political circus that we call elections is a very confusing mess to them!!! We never should forget we are working with 17 and 18 year olds who maybe paid a little attention to the last election, but who completely ignored any previous election that happened in their lifetime. Remember, these guys were only 13 during the Bush/Kerry election and 9 years old during Bush/Gore contest. They don't have a lot of experience to work with here.

To make this worse, many of our textbooks approach the topic of elections in a very unified way. That is to say, the texts lump together the process of presidential and congressional elections and present the topics of finance, polling, campaigning, voter behavior and so on together. When the students finish reading the chapters they have a pretty fair picture, but it is blurred on the edges.

For example, in an essay on Presidential financing, I always have students want to enter into a protracted discussion on PACs. Fine, but PACs should really be discussed in congressional elections since their influence in presidential elections is less vital. On the other hand, in essays on congressional elections I will have students discuss targeting messages to certain groups which can be very relevant in Presidential politics, but much less relevant in House elections, especially in geographically small districts that are somewhat homogeneous. While these mistakes are minor in our our classrooms, on an AP Exam, they can become disastrous leading to low scores on Free Response Questions or incorrectly answered Multiple Choice Questions.

My point here is simple. We need to separate presidential and congressional elections and create lessons, essays, and assignments that will focus on each topic individually. In my classes I intentionally and specifically tell the students, "this week we are working on congressional elections!" Everything for that week to totally focused only on House and Senate elections. We have class discussions, look at the Hippocampus lecture on Congressional Elections, watch Robert Redford's The Candidate, and write essays only on congressional elections. The next week I proclaim Presidential election week and we follow suit. During discussions I always am very careful to delineate congressional vs. presidential politics. (See the blog I use with my own students on this topic: Vix's APGOPO Heights High School)

Now, the experienced viewers are saying to themselves "ah, duh!"; and rightfully so. Most of us who have been around for a while have realized just how confusing the whole election process really is for kids. We have answered student questions time and again that should seem obvious, but in fact really are not. So for you who are just getting into the teaching of government and elections, take heed from us old timers. Never assume the kids understand a thing about the process. Explain every teaching point in fine detail. For while us older, more experienced adults have watched, participated, and voted in many election cycles, for the youngsters in our class, we are awakening them to a whole new and confusing world.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Political Parties...Teaching Controversy

A Funny Thing Happened in Class This Year...

Teaching the Political Party unit in APGOPO is usually a great deal of fun. By the time students are seniors they have become aware of the political environment in the nation and many of them watch the pundits on Fox or CNN or Comedy Central and have entered the earliest stages of forming a political philosophy. This can make for a very fun class discussion on political parties...but it can also lead to controversy that can be fraught with land mines for a teacher.

With this in mind, I try to always begin a unit on political parties with a couple of class rules firmly entrenched. First, we are discussing politics and all discussion should be done as the Founding Fathers intended..with civil discourse as the basic rule. I like to relate the story of Jefferson/Adams to the students. While these two towers of the early republic differed on almost all subjects of government, their respect and admiration for each other resulted in civility that should become the model for all Americans.

Second, all statements of political philosophy must be backed up with factual evidence...we are after all Political Scientist. The science aspect has its traditions back to Francis Bacon who would argue that observation and experimentation are necessary to understand a theory. Thus in my classes if students want to expound a theory they must produce the facts. Mindlessly repeating babble from televised "experts" is not allowed.

OK, with these rules I have an activity I like to do in class. I divide the class into two groups (after giving a very brief explanation of the political continuum) based on party affiliation. Typically my classes break 50/50 Republican and Democrat, or at least near enough to do the activity. Once we are split, I ask each group to produce a large poster (I give them a 3 foot by 3 foot sheet of butcher block paper) with their concept of what their Party stands for (a) socially, (b) politically, (c) economically, and (d) Constitutionally. They are not allowed to use books or Internet...this is just an activity to see how accurate they understand their Party's core beliefs.

Once this is done each group presents to the other and then the posters are hung in the room. during the presentations I allow questioning and a free flow of ideas to happen. Step two involves some real work. Each group is then charged to view the most current (2008) platform of their Party and to tear that platform down, summarize it, and present the summary to the other group. In the process of the presentations, we compare the assumptions of the group on the Parties core beliefs to the reality of the Party's Platform. (Republican Platform Democratic Platform)

On any given year I find that intuitively the students' perceptions are fairly accurate and that while there are always a few surprises in the discrepancy between assumed Party issue positions and the reality of these positions, these tend to be minor. What happens, however, is that in the process of relating Party lines to each other, the students come to understand that while the means to achieving the end may differ somewhat, both Parties have common goals. In other words, the students are able to understand that the Parties gravitate toward moderation and that the extreme views often shouted the loudest in the media are not the core values of their respective Party.

Several things happen in this exercise. First, students learn to discuss political ideologies and philosophies with civility. Second, students better understand the Party that they believe best reflects their own budding ideologies. The former is a valuable lesson for not only the class, but also for entering life. The latter can either entrench a student in their early ideology and party identification or it can challenge them to reevaluate the values they thought they held.

This year I did have a problem that never occurred before. In one of my classes I ended up with 95% of the class claiming to be of one party, leaving only a couple of students to shoulder the work in the other party. What was interesting was that after the first day, several of the student in the major party came to me and asked it they could switch groups. While one issue drove them initially to one party, the more careful study of the platform demonstrated to them that the other party's umbrella was more inviting.

Here is a fun twist on this project...make the groups look at the Platform of the opposing party and then make the presentations. The results end up very similar, but it puts a new light on the process. The bottom line in teaching the political parties is to embrace the controversy while encouraging the civility.